Veteran Suicide

Tonight on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer there was a segment on the alarming new statistics on the rate of suicide among returning United States soldiers (1) . The Army has recently confirmed suicide rates have doubled in recent years for active personnel, almost 700 cases since 2000. Furthermore, attempted suicides and self-injurious behaviors have quardrupled. The Army’s top psychiatrist thinks multiple deployments are to blame.

What I found interesting was that the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, James Peake MD, is not assigning blame for increased suicides to combat experience. This may seem like it is counter-intuitive, or even an outright lie, but, if his figures are accurate there could be some merit to his argument. Dr. Peake cited a figure that the suicide rate among non-deployed active personnel is actually higher than the rate among returning active personnel. In other words, there is not a direct correlation between suicide and combat experience. To me, this sounds like a classic “third variable” problem. A third variable problem is when a another, often non-obvious, factor is influencing the outcome. For example, looked at simply, there is a strong positive correlation between number of children and the presence of a toaster in the household. Surely, one would not attribute toasters to an effective form of birth control. The third variable in this example is money, people in comfortable financial situations can afford birth control AND toasters.

Dr. Peake went on to say failed relationships, feelings of hopelessness, and failures to transition are the real causes of veteran suicide. I would argue another factor that may be accounting for increased suicides is the type of individuals signing up to be in the armed services. My purpose is not to sully the reputation of military personnel, I appreciate what they do as much as the next person. But who joins the Army? Could it be that those that join the army are inherently more likely to commit suicide or engage in risky behaviors? Relatedly, motorcycle accidents have killed more Marines than Iraqi enemy fire in the past 12 months (2).

Regardless of the cause of suicides among military personnel, the solution remains the same. When individuals, military or otherwise, have good access to mental health professionals, suicide rates go down. In December 2007 the nonprofit group Mental Health America reported a state-by-state ranking of the severity of depression. Several midwest locations ranked in the top ten (South Dakota was #1) because people there have the most psychiatrists and social workers per capita than anywhere else in the United States. People in the midwest also have relatively high rates of health insurance.  They have the most access.

The good news is the Department of Veteran’s Affairs appears to be taking steps to increase access. They have established a Suicide Hotline, they’ve hired 4,000 new mental health professionals in the past two years to bring the total number to 17,000. They are also increasing efforts to screen returning soldiers and promising to increase prescriptions for soldiers who need it. They are also spending money on research to identify suicide risks.

I will definitely be following this trend and hope the efforts by the VA will have an impact. Perhaps the best thing would be to bring the troops home. However, I say this with some caution because a return en masse would likely bog down the already strapped VA system.

-Posted by Tyler

(1) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/

(2) http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/10/30/marine.motorcycles/index.html?eref=rss_latest

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  1. Oh, how I love your APA writing style. I’m an MLA man myself, but freely admit to APA-envy. So scientific, objective, empirical.

    Mad props.

    Signed,
    Adam Schenck

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